WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan's name doesn't create the kind of buzz in Washington media circles that some of his immediate predecessors — and even the party's general chairman, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez — seem to generate.
But for more than two decades, the man some fellow Kentucky Republicans call "Mr. Inside" has been quietly working behind the scenes to help raise funds and elect Sen. Jim Bunning, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and every Republican president since Richard Nixon to office.
"If you go back over the past 15, maybe 20 years, it's pretty hard to find someone who has been in leadership at the RNC or the White House who didn't have Mike for guidance or in their inner circle," said Ron Kaufman, a longtime political adviser to both former President George H.W. Bush and current presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But Duncan, an Inez, Ky., native and close friend of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, faces a tremendous challenge as he helps steer his party through the 2008 presidential elections.
Duncan's mission: Sell a brand that has weathered record low presidential approval ratings, frustration over the Iraq war, lobbying and congressional ethics scandals, and 2006 congressional losses.
"Mike Duncan has it tough," said Stacie Paxton, Democratic National Committee press secretary. "He's been presiding over a Republican Party in disarray and a group of presidential candidates none of which is the first choice for Republican voters. Not the position that I'd want to be in."
Duncan says he's looking forward to helping the GOP "get back to the basics of the Republican Party." But he's also aware of the challenges the party faces.
"It's disappointing that we didn't do better in 2006," Duncan said of last November's elections, when Republicans lost control of the House and Senate. "I think people were disappointed by what they saw as problems with congressional spending, the number of earmarks, there were members of Congress who did things we rather they did not do, there were ethical issues, frustration with the war."
These concerns have led to an overall party refocusing on core Republican values, party leaders said.
"We have built a great reputation for understanding our need to go back to the grassroots," said Jo Ann Davidson, co-chairman of the RNC. "It's important to have someone in that role who is well qualified to follow that trend."
Davidson and other Duncan supporters say he is more than up to the task. After all, he's been convincing people to buy tough-to-sell brands ever since childhood, when he sold hardware and shoes in his father's general store in Strunk, Ky.
Friends say Duncan's affable personality, political savvy, intense work ethic and strong sense of loyalty have earned him high regard in the GOP. He's the kind of guy who has worn suits and ties since his time as student body president at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., and who never forgets to send White House Christmas ornaments to his friends.
"It's kind of corny in a way, but he's just an all-around good guy," said Warren Scoville, a member of Kentucky's GOP state central committee. "He loves his wife. He's a good family man. He runs a bank. Just a nice guy."
Duncan's biggest challenge still may be ahead of him.
"The challenges are keeping the base energized, keeping the donors energized, keeping the money coming in, and keeping the faithful believing," said Kaufman.
As part of the chairmanship role he splits with Martinez, Duncan oversees the RNC's daily operations while Martinez is more of the party's public face — someone who makes the rounds of interviews with the networks, public appearances and fundraisers. But when congressional duties tie Martinez to Washington, Duncan participates in grassroots events across the country.
Martinez and Duncan keep in close contact.
"Sen. Martinez and I are close, we have dinner together often and we talk a lot," Duncan said.
During the first six months of 2007, the Republican Party's national, senatorial and congressional committees raised $108.8 million and spent $87.1 million, according to the FEC. This is a 22 percent decline when compared to the same period in 2003 heading into the presidential election season.
By contrast, the Democratic Party's national, senatorial and congressional committees raised $111.5 million and spent $67.7 million. This is a 98 percent increase when compared to the same period in 2003.
"They are trying to raise money in an environment of discouragement at a time when people aren't sure which direction the party is going to move," said Christopher Arterton, dean of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.